Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marijuana II: Does the ban on marijuana put peaceful druggies in jail?

I have had some interesting discussions with people on the topic of legalizing marijuana since my last post on the topic. In my last post, I argued why we should consider legalizing marijuana. From what I have seen, marijuana commentators fall into two camps: (1) people who favor legalization and provide support with logical arguments, and (2) people who oppose legalization and do so incoherently. The commentators in the first camp far outnumber those in the second camp (just do a Google search for legalize marijuana).

To help provide balance to this debate, I want to make the case for the other side. I will do so in a series of posts. In this post, I summarize the arguments (good and bad) for legalizing marijuana. I plan show why most (but not all) of these points go up in smoke when we apply logic. Throughout this series of posts, I seriously question why keeping the ban on marijuana might be good policy.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, you should recognize that there are two logical sides to the legalization debate. I hope this series of posts conveys that.

Arguments for Legalization
In a nutshell, the best argument for legalization is that an illegal marijuana market gives potential suppliers motivation to fight over market share. Unlike legal markets where suppliers fight over consumers using the weaponry of lower prices and better quality, suppliers in illegal markets fight over territory using actual weapons. Dealers are breaking the law already by selling drugs, so they might as well break the law with flair and use it to their advantage. Legalization would quell these conflicts, and perhaps, give drug-selling gangs less of a reason to exist.

There are numerous other reasons people give for legalizing marijuana. Here is the sampling of reasons for legalization that I have heard in the week since my last post. I'm sure there are more, but these are the ones I plan to address first.
  1. A ban on marijuana puts peaceful people in jail, whereas our resources could be better spent elsewhere.
  2. People are in favor of it. Nearly a majority (41%) of Americans support legalization.
  3. Taxing and regulating marijuana will certainly raise loads of tax revenue.
  4. Marijuana is less harmful to people than alcohol. Yet, alcohol is legal.
  5. Rogue organizations set up marijuana plantations in national parks, damaging the environment. Such operations would no longer exist if marijuana were legal.
Analysis of Legalization Arguments
The case for legalizing marijuana is compelling. In particular, I believe that prohibition of marijuana leads to gang violence. To this argument, the best counterpoint is a question: This reason for legalizing marijuana also would have applied to legalizing crack cocaine in the early 1990s. Don't we need to know more about the effects of marijuana to make an informed policy choice? Indeed we do, but I'll leave that discussion for a future post.

In this post, I address the logic behind arguments (1) and (2) for legalization.

1. The ban on pot puts peaceful people in jail.
This argument is rooted in the observation that marijuana users are typically peaceful. I think this perception arises from the fact that pot users typically become calm while on the drug. Such a loose argument bothers me, so let's tug at some strings. Even if the drug is illegal, do the laws on the books really put recreational users behind bars? A quick Google search provides the answer: not likely. Though laws vary from state to state, the standard penalties for a first offense of possession of marijuana are probation, community service, and drug counseling.

On the other hand, if someone is convicted of possession with intent to sell, that's a more serious offense, which likely comes with considerable jail time. But, isn't possession with intent to sell a much more serious offense than merely using the drug? If someone really intends to sell marijuana, he likely falls into the category of people who are fighting over users. That's no endorsement for being a peaceful druggie.

My impression is that, by default, commentators portray pot dealers as peaceful (i.e., they're only dealing marijuana, so what's the problem?). This is bad logic and I think it is misleading. As an example, look at this editorial, which makes reference to two brothers' arrest for dealing a ton of marijuana (that's an actual ton, 1000 kilos). The title clearly conveys how the author feels: "jailing peaceful druggies a big waste." I think we're entitled to wonder who these "peaceful druggies" are.

Minimal further investigation demonstrates that the so called "peaceful druggies" from the article, Ross Landfried III and Noah Landfried, were not really that innocent after all. For example, this article describes how these brothers were heading a marijuana-trafficking ring that also sold cocaine. This article describes how one of the brothers, Ross, was implicated in a cocaine and ecstacy trafficking bust seven years earlier. After the earlier bust, the state Attorney General displayed the "pillow-sized packets of cocaine at his Pittsburgh office."

Maybe it is the scale of the operation or maybe it is the repeat offense, but I'm beginning to think that these particular druggies were not so peaceful after all. More generally, people who are willing to break the law to sell marijuana do so because they do not mind breaking the law. By and large, this selects people who are not peaceful. Maybe marijuana users are peaceful, but it is quite unlikely that marijuana dealers are. And, when we look at who serves the most jail time on account of the pot ban, it is dealers, not users.

2. The people favor legalization (According to a CBS poll, 41 percent of Americans support legalization).
This is one of four arguments put forth by the Marijuana Policy Project for taxing and regulating marijuana. It is the worst argument I have ever heard. Period. That includes arguments for other things, not just legalizing marijuana.

This is such a bad argument because support for an idea is irrelevant to whether it is a good idea! The consequences of any action are the same regardless of the level of support for the idea. To see why, think back to our last election. It clearly would not matter if Barack Obama received 90 percent rather than just over 50 percent of the vote. More votes do not make him a better president. That's why you don't see people sitting around saying, "Man. I wish I voted for Barack Obama now. Look, he might have put together a better stimulus package if I did vote for him." In the very same way, more support for legalizing marijuana does not imply that it is good policy.

That's it for now. I plan to address the logic behind some other arguments for legalization in a future post on Wednesday 20 May 2009. There will be posts after that.

I'm interested in hearing your comments. Are there arguments for legalization that I left out? Are there any arguments for legalization you think I should consider? Please let me know. I want this discussion to be as open and balanced as possible.


  1. 2. The people favor legalization (According to a CBS poll, 41 percent of Americans support legalization).
    This is one of four arguments put forth by the Marijuana Policy Project for taxing and regulating marijuana. It is the worst argument I have ever heard. Period. That includes arguments for other things, not just legalizing marijuana.

    I think that if we are to consider ourselves a true republic then that is a good argument. Change as a governmental body is the key to our society, and what the people want the people should get.

  2. If they just allowed the states to implement sensible medical use laws, most of the problems surrounding marijuana use would disappear.
    Medical use = responsible use.

  3. Those two dealers were not very innocent as they were up to shady practices their whole lives and we knew they would end up dead or in jail...:0

  4. There was an anonymous comment in response to the last comment that had a disrespectful tone. Therefore, I moderated it.

    In the interest of being balanced, I'll communicate the main points.

    1. Ross and Noah Landfried are two beautiful, nonviolent people.
    2. The previous poster is out of line.
    3. The author (me) is being unprofessional by stating opinions I know NOTHING about.

    My response.

    You're right that I don't personally know the Landfrieds, but my comment was about drug dealers in general. There are good reasons to expect dealers to be more violent than the average person.

    Suppose you want to start a drug ring, but you want to make sure that your money/product doesn't get stolen by your clients. Or, you want to make sure you can get your clients to pay up.

    If you ran a convenience store, there'd be no problem because the police have your back. That's not true with an illegal drug operation. There are two reasons this leads you resort to more violence:

    1. On one hand, you don't have police protection (so you're not going to get much help if someone tries to rob you).

    2. On the other hand, your clients and other dealers know you don't have police protection (so they're more likely to come after your stuff).

    Therefore, if you're involved in an illegal drug operation, you need some violence (or threat of violence) to back up your operation. On this basis, I'd expect dealers (including the Landfrieds) to either be violent, prone to violence, or know-trust-employ someone who is prone to violence.

    That's just good business sense for the industry they're in. From the news articles, it sounds like they had a thriving business. Thus, I suspect they had good business sense.

    These sorts of incentives work on a market level, so the Landfrieds could be an exception (nonviolent, beautiful and profitable). But, the fact remains that drug dealers need violence as an input to a well-run drug operation. By the nature of their business, most drug dealers cannot afford to be peaceful.